With little in the way of news to chew on, the Scottish political blogosphere has begun to eat itself of late, with an exhausting number of articles on popular sites about how an SNP list vote is a wasted vote and anyone thinking of voting for the Nats in both constituency and region is a deluded cultist/simple-witted idiot (mostly written by candidates/supporters of other parties who are often not identified as such), and now some angry pieces from disgruntled SNP supporters making the opposite point.
All are based, from one perspective or another, on opinion polls and seat predictions based on those polls, some of which appear to be based on very shaky premises.
We’ve already broken down the mechanics of the Scottish electoral system at very considerable length, so readers will be relieved that we’re not going to get into that again. Instead, we thought we’d take a very specific region-by-region look at the scale of the task facing the fringe parties.
Give or take a percentage point here and there, most polls are showing that while the likely constituency vote share for the SNP is considerably higher than the one they got in 2011, the Nats’ regional vote is looking like being around the same: 45 to 46%.
What that means is that we can look at each area in turn, make some educated guesses about the likely state of the list vote, and see what’s needed to capture seats. So let’s have a bash.
2011 minimum: 12,029 votes
The SNP took six constituency seats in 2011, and got three on the list. That means that by the time their final list seat was won, their vote of 108,261 had been divided by nine, making 12,029. To take a single list seat, that’s the target a fringe party would have had to beat.
Were the Nats to have swept every constituency that year, they’d have lost all three of their list seats to Labour and the minimum would drop to 11,780. (Labour’s vote of 82,459 divided by seven, with Labour taking six list seats and the Tories one again.)
How much would each of the three fringe parties have to increase their 2011 vote by to reach that target?
The Green vote in 2011 was 5,634, so they’d need a 109% increase.
The SSP (now effectively RISE) got 820, so they’d need a 1,437% increase.
And Solidarity got 559, so they’d need to go up by a hefty 2,107%.
CONCLUSION: From this one example we can pretty much divine the wider picture. If we make the assumption, for the sake of argument, that the SNP win every Central constituency seat but list votes for the traditional parties stay very broadly where they were in 2011, then nothing much changes. The Nats stay the same, gaining three constituencies and losing three list seats. Labour are the same but the other way round, and the Tories stay on one.
Any significant shift – such as a sizeable drop in the Labour vote or a big increase in the SNP one – lets the Nats start to make net gains long before the fringe parties get a look-in. The D’Hondt divisor on a constituency clean sweep leaves them with 10,826 votes, so if the Labour tally falls from 82,000 to below 65,000 the SNP pick up a list seat and their effective vote (now divided by 11) falls to 9,841 – still more than 4000 above the Greens.
The Greens could boost their 2011 vote by 50% – a Herculean achievement – and still have no realistic hope of getting anywhere near a list seat. The other two fringe parties could get TEN TIMES their 2011 vote and would still be nowhere.
PREDICTION: Zero fringe-party MSPs.
2011 minimum: 10,433
Here we have a different situation but a similar outcome. The lowest seat-winning vote was Labour’s, whose third list seat was won on a 73,031 vote divided by seven (four constituency seats plus two previous list ones). The Greens actually won a seat, with Patrick Harvie collecting 12,454 votes, just 95 behind the Conservatives.
Were the SNP to have taken every constituency seat, their list vote would have dropped to 8,311 and they’d have lost the two list seats they won in 2011, leaving them two better off overall. That gain would come at Labour’s expense – they’d pick up five list seats, leaving their vote at 12,172.
CONCLUSION: To get a second seat, therefore, the Greens would more or less have to double their vote again. Much less and either Labour or the SNP would still pip them to a seat, depending on whether their respective votes increase or decrease.
Glasgow is also the heartland of the other parties of the pro-indy fringe, making their job of picking up left-wing votes harder. The chances of doubling the Green vote to a colossal 12% seem remote.
PREDICTION: One Green MSP, as now.
2011 minimum: 9,453
This is an interesting one. The SNP took six of eight constituency seats in 2011, missing out on only Orkney and Shetland. Those will come under severe pressure this time round in the wake of the Alistair Carmichael fiasco, but it’s far from a foregone conclusion that they’ll fall to the Nats.
Last time round the two Lib Dem wins meant that the SNP picked up three list seats, the last of them on an effective vote of 9,453 (85,082 divided by nine). That looks temptingly reachable for the Greens, who narrowly missed out after picking up 9,076.
The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that Jean Urquhart, who was elected for the SNP last time but left the party over NATO membership and now sits as an independent, is at the top of the RISE list and surely represents its only hope of getting an MSP this year.
CONCLUSION: This one’s all but impossible to call, but the fringe parties will have to clear a whole series of obstacles. The Lib Dems could conceivably hold the island seats, or the surging SNP vote which very nearly ousted Carmichael last year could win one or both constituencies, which would almost definitely see the Lib Dems scoop list seats in compensation, or a strong personal vote for Urquhart could either take her across the finishing line or split the radical left.
PREDICTION: A definite possibility of a single seat for one of the fringe parties, but it’s not clear which one’s in pole position, and don’t bet the mortgage on it anyway.
2011 minimum: 16,510
So far as we can tell, the cheapest list seat in Lothian in 2011 was that won by Gavin Brown for the Tories, with half of the party’s base vote of 33,019. This was the other region in which the Greens picked up a seat, with Alison Johnstone’s 21,505 votes getting her in comfortably. Having taken eight out of nine constituencies, the SNP’s list vote was reduced by the divisor to just 12,328.
Complicating matters further when analysing the outcome for this year are the 18,732 votes cast for the tragically-deceased Margo MacDonald, which are now up for grabs. The Lib Dems also have a relatively solid base in and around Edinburgh, and came close five years ago with 15,588 votes.
CONCLUSION: Lothian must by any reasonable assessment represent the Greens’ best hope of making gains. Nevertheless, the numbers suggest that to double their representation they’ll still have to boost their vote by at least 50%.
The SNP got no list seats here in 2011 so there’s no low-hanging fruit for the pro-indy left. With core votes already down to the bone Labour are almost certain to hang onto their three list seats and the Tories to their two, so the Nats picking up the one Labour constituency (currently held by Malcolm Chisholm) would make little difference.
PREDICTION: One Green gain. Andy Wightman is a strong second-placed candidate on the Green list, and may well manage to snaffle enough of the Margo vote to get in.
2011 minimum: 12,695
A traditional SNP heartland, 2011 saw the Nats take eight of nine constituency seats and still pick up another on the list for Annabelle Ewing, with just a ninth of the party’s base list vote of 116,691. It’s also the home of Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, who gathered 15,103 to scrape home late in the ballot.
The Greens were just about within sight five years ago, with 10,914 votes. Had the SNP also taken Helen Eadie’s constituency seat of Cowdenbeath, their list vote would have been divided down to 11,669 and left the Greens just 755 short.
CONCLUSION: The Labour and Tory core votes, in mining villages and farming areas respectively, are pretty solid, and the Lib Dems will throw the kitchen sink at the region to try to avoid the humiliation of losing their leader. The SNP vote is also likely to increase. It’s going to be a squeeze, and the Green list-topper Mark Ruskell isn’t a well-known face even by Green standards.
PREDICTION: A reasonable chance of a Green gain, but we think they’ll fall short.
2011 minimum: 12,795
The SNP dominated the North-East so totally in 2011 that they took a list seat despite sweeping all TEN constituencies, dividing their base list vote by 11. The second-last list seat went to the Lib Dems with 18,178 and the one before that to the Tories with 18,841. The Greens were a long way back on 10,407.
CONCLUSION: The Greens have a big mountain to climb in Scotland’s most oil-loving region, not helped by the fact that the local party is split in two because of a bitter selection row around top-ranked candidate Maggie Chapman. The chances of them picking up the huge number of new votes they need for a seat are essentially zero.
PREDICTION: No change.
2011 minimum: 14,283
South is the most hotly-contested of all Scotland’s regions, with the constituency and list seats currently split between four parties. The chances of an SNP clean sweep here are extremely remote – the Tories will fancy their chances of hanging on to at least two of their three constituency seats, and tactical voting could conceivably save Labour’s Elaine Murray in Dumfriesshire, although Iain Gray’s 151 majority in East Lothian is surely toast.
CONCLUSION: This is almost as tall an order as the North-East for the Greens, for very different reasons. With just 8,656 votes last time they need to almost double their share to be in with a shout, and the four biggest parties will all put up a real fight in what’s becoming the last redoubt of Unionism in Scotland. A pro-indy Green ticket is a tougher sell there than just about anywhere.
PREDICTION: No joy here for the radical fringe.
2011 minimum: 14,663
This is another region where the SNP will be hoping to make constituency gains, having taken just six out of the ten seats last time round. That meant they got two list seats, the second of which was won with one-eighth of their 117,306 base vote.
As with Central Scotland, should the Nats take those seats then Labour will mainly feel the benefit – their hefty 2011 total of 92,530 was their highest list vote by a distance, and even if quite heavily reduced will still stretch a long way under D’Hondt.
In fact, if anything, because of the strong Labour presence, the more constituencies the SNP manage to pick up here the higher the bar for a list seat is likely to get, and it’s already the second-highest target figure in this analysis.
CONCLUSION: The Green vote in 2011 was just 8,414, their second-lowest. This is another region where realistically it’ll have to double to get anywhere near the prizes, and in polling (going by what little area-specific data there is) it’s one of the party’s weakest. They were below the Lib Dems in 2011 and they didn’t get a seat either.
PREDICTION: Labour and the SNP swap constituency seats for list ones, and the Tories hang on to their two, because really, how much lower can the Tories go?
So what have we learned? Alert readers will have noticed that we’ve barely mentioned RISE or Solidarity/Hope Over Fear, because quite simply the idea of either of them making an electoral breakthrough this year is a fantasy.
Both are starting from bases of hundreds of votes, not thousands, and turning that into the five-figure numbers you need for an MSP in one go is a pipe-dream. Jean Urquhart MIGHT be able to parlay her incumbency and relative recognisablity into something bankable, but sadly we fear the intelligent and principled MSP is on her way out. Tommy Sheridan and Cat Boyd are by far the best-known of the rest, but will still struggle to capture 1% shares, let alone the 6%+ you need for a seat.
And while online “seat predictors” might suggest eight or nine seats for the Greens on current polling, what we see above is that it’s very hard to identify where those seats would actually come from.
(We’re reminded of last year’s UK election, where the predictions of the SNP taking 55 or more seats instinctively seemed outlandish, until you tried to name the ones they wouldn’t win and started scratching your head after five or six.)
As ever, we make no recommendation. Vote for who you want to vote for. But if a “wasted” vote is one that doesn’t result in an MSP being returned, there isn’t much doubt about which side of the debate currently occupying a small but noisy section of the independence movement is correct.